Monday, February 27, 2012

Occupy Our Food Supply - Herbs First

Beginning the cure.
I admit it, I'm more of a slowcial media person than a twitterbug, and so it is that I'm only finding out late on the day itself that February 27th is Occupy Our Food Supply day, when we stand up to Monsanto, Cargill, ADM and the very few others who control most of the seed and crops. And, I guess I should mention, the vast market in chemicals that most food growers use.

So what can one blogger do? Coincidentally, I planted 8 more blueberry bushes today, but it'll be a while before production outstrips the capacity for the kids to eat them before they make it into pies, much less the freezer. I could write about problems with the food system, but plenty of people have done that. I might even conjure up a pipeline of dreams about living off the agribusiness grid, about a self-feeding urban greenstead, but who am I kidding, I still use stores.

Or I could just talk about the one part of my life in which I exercise food autonomy: herbs. People with space might've gone for a staple-ish staff of life, some storable starch on the potato to quinoa continuum. Canning mavens may've favored veggies or fruit sufficient to put up a year's supply. And of course, there are the chicken yarders, beginning and ending with the egg. 

But me, I likes me some spice, some flavoring. And, I am kinda lazy. So at this point, all the self-sufficiency I can point to is on the herban front. I buy no garlic, no oregano, no thyme, no mint, no chives. It's a small success, but I grow enough of these to eat all I want (and I want a lot, profligate herber that I am).

There are some things that would be hard to grow here in Olympia--tropical exotica, and some years even a decent chile--but for those this town is lucky enough to have Buck's spice shop, where you can get just about anything you can think of, from local alder-smoked salt to finely tuned curries, not to mention some fine conversation. They do mail order, but I'm lucky enough to be able to walk in, sniff around til I find what I want, and buy however much or little my taste-buds desire. If you read my blogs, you know I'm no shiller or plugger, but in this case it makes sense to send readers to this finest of spice ladies. 

Are the agri-giants are quaking in their boots, knowing that I grow my own herbs and buy spices from a freedom-fooder? Probably not, but my autonomy is mine, not a foil to their hegemony. Small a step as it is, growing my own herbs is a move away from McCormick monotony and corporate subjectitude. I'm  getting closer to doing the same with growing tomatoes (weather permitting, I should get there this year), and will keep buying as much as I can of everything else from local farmers. Maybe I'll even get off my ass and start making my own salt this year, something that hasn't happened in the years since I stopped working in Kona. 

Life will continue to taste good, and the big boys will get an iota less. I may not be an important voice, Pollanating the culture, making corporations Shiva, but I do what I can, and for me, that begins with aiming my money where it benefits farmers most, and starting on the road to self-sufficiency with some tasty flavors. 


Friday, February 24, 2012

First Spring

Spring in the northwest defies the simple "April showers bring May flowers" logic I grew up with back east. Since arriving here four years ago, I've been presented with several theories about how it works: Spring comes late some years, Spring takes it's own sweet time reaching fullness, there is no Spring between Rain and Summer. According to my yard and the plants and critters of the maritime northwest, however, the truth is that there are many Springs.

A foot of snow and ice may have distracted us, but First Spring began not so long after the Winter Solstice, as the earth revolves toward longer days, and some things begin to awaken. But if you looked closely at those branches downed by the storm, you could see swelling alder buds, catkins, and other signs of growth. By mid-February, even in my procrastinating yard (which seems to do everything a week or so after the rest of Olympia), shoots are emerging from the ground, blueberry buds are swelling, and the grass is growing again. Even garlic in the pantry is heeding the call, going soft and sending out roots and shoots.

It will take months for this precursory promise to become full flower, but it's enough to keep me going. More than that, to get me going. Emergence begets urgency. Dormancy is slipping away, so it's time to transplant those things I intend to move, plant new fruit I want to establish, and cut those scions if I am wont to graft. Seeds need sorting, new beds must be dug, bushes and trees cry out for pruning so they can grow in the right direction, and so on. Garden gear stashed or abandoned in the Fall has to be checked and fixed (or culled), and Winter's windfall is not totally sorted, stacked, and otherwise re-deployed. The list grows longer as time flows faster.

First Spring is the farmer's breakfast, imbibed early while the rest of the world sleeps, warming the belly and fueling the body for work that must be done. While the rest of the world awaits the more obvious Spring, replete with flowers and sunshine, here at the greenstead those first shoots and sprouts say it's time to wake up from that long Winter's nap. Subtle snowdrop blooms and blushing budswells reinvigorate me with beauty--latency before blatancy--and serve as quiet reminders before fully unfurled foliage says it's too late to be ahead of the game.

Some people are already busy starting seeds under lights and on heating pads. Maybe I am too cheap to buy the gear or the watts (in more pious moments, I'd say I'm loathe to consume too much), and it definitely could be that I procrastinate (or, sayeth the self-righteous me: not hubristic enough to force nature to my timetable). In the end, I know that come April I can support local growers by buying their starts at the Farmers Market: I get a good healthy selection without having had to buy seeds months ago, and they get some income before crops are ready.

Another thing that has been on people's minds over the past few months has been planning. I've never been that disciplined, and since the garden skeleton (trees and bushes, the woody parts that don't move so readily) is articulated already, I don't do that much planning. While others studied and fretted, I ate and carved. At some point soon, I'll think about how I want to flesh out the gardens as I plant spinach and radishes, but for the most part the foodscape is formed by habit and whim. Shoots of garlic, daffodils, and tulips, as well as the hoop house full of embiggening lettuce and spinach seem to suggest that I did some planning last Fall, but I don't recall. The seasons, and in particular this year's version of how they will play out, have their own plan, and I am mostly just along for the ride.

Which brings me back to where I started: First Spring. Spring begets Summer begets Fall is way too simplistic, and not so helpful. The first year I was here, I saw signs of Spring and immediately started planting. The result? I had some beans that sprouted and remained in suspended animation as tiny seedlings for a few months, while the rest just rotted in the ground. Things like that need to wait til Warm Soil Spring, which is after Nettle Spring and Burgeoning Spring. OK, I am just making up those names on the fly, but the point is that the seasons hold more complexity than how our calendar is drawn and quartered. Look at the "moons" identified by farmers, or those named in Lushootseed and the other native languages of our region, and you'll see that for most of our history, humans had a more refined appreciation of what happened to their world as it swung round the sun.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Severe Windfall

The weather has cleared, but the debris has not, which means that it is time to apply Clearing Theory. The storm that dumped over a foot of snow and ice pulled down billions of branches, and people are still clearing and cleaning; yesterday I saw a convoy of pick-ups and trailers filled with alder and others, headed for the city's overflow pile. Back at Mojourner Truth, I wrote about the normal windfall of alder, and how I'm one of those back to the earth freaks who welcomes the organic rain of catkins, cones, and twigs.

But the aftermath of an ice storm is a different thing. Not the normal seasonal droppings. More like the difference between the farmer whose flock drops fertile pellets and the farmer who awakes to find the pasture strewn with the torn remains of a chupacabra frenzy. My usual compulsive conservation of biomass broke down, and a couple of small loads went to the city's chipper.

Not all of the severed limbs went away, though. Surgical machete work first freed the biggest pieces, which will cook salmon and whatever else need grilling this summer. (Just a week before the storm, I'd been fretting about where the wood would come from...careful what you ask for.) I waded into the carnage, blade a-swinging, but with a mission in mind. 

I'll ramble on about Clearing Theory at length, but later. Right now, suffice it to say that what looks like a guy skittering and pausing, whacking branches and tossing them this way and that follows a plan. It's pretty basic, and boils down to a few basic decisions based on branch diameter and length. Anything as big as my older daughter's wrist is firewood, and all the smaller stuff gets chopped off and sorted into bean or hops poles (if it's long enough), kindling (between wrist and finger caliber, and with at least a foot of straight wood), and the twigs of less-than-finger diameter that will break down fairly quickly. Along the way, I stack the gnarlier mid-sized pieces for removal.

It sounds like a lot of work, but with a sharp machete, it goes quickly. I don't even bother moving the small stuff, stomping it where it falls to kick off the decomposition process. All the other piles are stacked--more or less--branches parallel. That makes the stuff I plan to haul off easier to pick up (after hacking off a few more itty-bitty ends), and lays out the bigger stuff so that a few chainsaw swipes will reduce it to the size I want. Before long, the crazy tangle is reduced to a pile of mini-logs, a stack of bean-poles, and a pick-up bed full of branches. The ground takes on a grey haze of twigs that in the coming week or so will be stomped into the dirt or tossed under the alders where the native blackberries will clamber and blanket them.

Traditional Clearing Theorists still hold that this is an anti-entropic enterprise, a transformation of chaos into order. The post-modern contingent points out that the integrity of any one branch is violated, and that the "order" is no better than Belgian colonialism. I can see sense in the first part of this argument, but the latter part is ridiculously cantilevered. Yes, the branches are cut up, and parts of them are a couple of miles away. But I'm just hastening the natural process of returning cellulose to the earth, and snagging some firewood in the process. Nobody gets rich, nobody gets abused, and there is no Kurtz lurking in the dark reaches of the far back yard.